When the disaster in Haiti unfolded, San Francisco-based Architecture for Humanity (AfH) stepped forward with a plan to rebuild Haiti. No stranger to disaster rebuilding, AfH was in the forefront of reconstruction both after the tsunami of 2004 and Katrina. I caught up with AfH’s executive director, Cameron Sinclair, to find out just what he and his organization are doing.
George Calys: Architecture for Humanity has been involved in rebuilding after other disasters such as Katrina and the 2004 tsunami. Tell me how Haiti compares to those disasters. What’s it like?
Cameron Sinclair: It’s really hard to compare. The devastation is out of control. We’re still trying to get data, but you think about this disaster, there may be as many people affected in Haiti as were in the ten countries affected by the  tsunami. We’re looking at 1.5 million people who are homeless in a country of 9 million people. Project that into the USA and it would be 50 million people.
That country was set up for disaster. Building codes were seen as an afterthought and so [the disaster] was monumental. Last year in Gonaives [Haiti] I was asked what I thought and I said this is a natural disaster. That was then and this is a bigger disaster. You really can’t compare it. This is right on our doorstep.
GC: Everyone has seen your Huffington Post article. What is AfH doing right now? Do you have people in Haiti?
CS: What’s been interesting is that we have spent time in Haiti [previously], we’ve had teams in Haiti, we have partners in Haiti. We knew what kind of work we would do pre-disaster, what the set up would be, so [we had already done] a lot of the thinking on that Huffington Post piece. Originally, it was going to be circulated to some aid agencies, but we live in a digital age and there are more people that have tweeted that [Huffington article] than there are aid agencies [in existence]. It has been going out everywhere and a dialogue has ensued about how to rebuild. People worry that they give their five dollars, their ten dollars, and they don’t know what is going to happen to it. Our organization is to make sure there accountability and transparency in the work that we do. We did that on the gulf coast and after the tsunami. We have partner teams on the ground right now, Haitians, doing assessments and the last thing you want to do is airdrop American architects in, with their turtlenecks running around.
We’ve been doing a lot of fundraising. We’ve raised $100,000 in ten and twenty dollar donations. That seems like a very small amount in this disaster, but that amount keeps us on the ground for a year. A whole team, working on multiple projects, making sure that we don’t just build, but that we build back better.
The third thing we’ve done, and this has been a surprise to me, is that we’re coalition building. Part of it is these large companies like Bechtel, Halliburton, these guys, who get the big contracts, the Beltway boys. That’s fine, they can go right ahead and do that. We’re kind of like a tugboat and they’re an oil tanker. We can move very swiftly, we can collaborate, we can work together. I just put a call out to my team and I said, look, if there is anyone who wants to collaborate on this, you let me know. We’re already at 30 organizations globally, half of them in Haiti, who are saying we’re behind you, we have our network behind you.
GC: Are these mainly other architects and designers?
CS: It’s a cross spectrum of professions. We need information and communication technology, we need medical professionals, we need legal, the idea is we put together a team that can have open conversations about reconstruction.
We’ve had people, well known personalities come to us and say, look I don’t know anything about buildings but you do. What I can do is raise funds for doing a bunch of schools or I can talk to the congressman that you can’t get to.
Last year we worked with Yele Haiti (Haitian singer Wyclef Jean’s relief organization). They could go places no one else could. Cité Soleil? Nobody’s going to go there. The place was a war zone before this disaster. But Yele Haiti could go there.
These are the organizations we’re partnering with.
GC: You’re looking at one year, five years, ten years out. What kind of financial investment is it going to take?
CS: We’re not just building homes, we’re building equity for families. It’s not just about shelter, it’s about building a financial mechanism that will allow people to buy and sell their homes in the future. If we’re going to pour in billions of dollars and after five years these homes are worthless because that’s all they lasted, then we’ve wasted the money.
We have about 21 to 28 days to raise the money. The way the media works, the way people’s attention works, is that after that donations drop off. In six months, there will be the nice cute story about the orphan who is doing well, what we call the “happy puppy” story. The fact is, AfH is still working the aftermath of Katrina, four years later. All the money we raised [for Katrina], we raised in the first four months. We just wrapped up from the tsunami, which was five years ago, and that money we raised in six months.
It doesn’t take us a lot to build. We can build a simple school for $100,000 where other agencies need a quarter to a half a million dollars. I would rather we do a pragmatic structure that puts the optimal amount of kids in school. If the kids are in school, the parents can get a job, if the parents can work, the economy of Haiti can come back.
GC: It’s not just houses, is it? It’s schools, community centers, medical facilities. AfH will work on those?
CS: All of them. I fielded a call earlier asking whether we can determine the structural integrity of mass graves. It took me a while to get over that question.
We’re going to be looking at the transitional buildings. What about governance when the government has no place to meet? In Sri Lanka we built community resource centers which the government could also use. It changed the dynamic of how the government treated people because they had to borrow space from the community. When you have multiple tenants and multiple uses, people keep each other in check. When you have the community center on one end, the city government on the other, and a tea shop in between and the mayor of the town goes to get his tea, he has to encounter the people of his town.
GC: What can architects, engineers, contractors, and students do right now?
CS: We have a threefold strategy. We’ve set up design studios in the affected country—we’ve done this time and again. We have a core team that manages the design studio and directs hundreds of professionals. They’re there every day and the community sees them every day. A professional could take a design sabbatical of six months or a year or even just a few weeks. But we have to have the design centers in place.
Another way is for a designer to donate their design services.
GC: You mean I could donate my services from my design office in San Francisco or New York or Chicago?
CS: Absolutely. We’ve also said to design firms, why not send a staff person to Haiti, pay them what you would pay them, don’t lay them off, and let them work on a project full time for us. Instead of spending money flying people in and out of Haiti and taking publicity photos, put an architect on the ground.
Every time we get into these emergency situations, architects and engineers and contractors have risen to the occasion. Here’s the one moment where all these groups can merge. And everyone has to check their ego at the door. Some of the name architects have come to us and said we’d like to help but we don’t need our names attached to this.
The reconstruction plan was written to get ahead of the game. It’s not a great plan, but a lot of people have said let’s go, let’s do this. Yesterday, I got a call from the Vatican, right? They have a big issue too—all the churches are wiped out. Doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are, for the Haitians, that’s a huge part of the fabric in Haiti. I was completely taken aback by the Vatican request to help them.
I spoke last Thursday to someone in Haiti about a design school that we had been involved with. And the response was, they’re gone, all gone, building, faculty, students, gone. Unless you understand the real impact of “they’re all gone”, you can’t really respond.
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